Remembering William Pincus: Father of Clinical Legal Education

Bill Pincus outside his office at the Ford Foundation.

GW Law and all of legal education lost a giant on May 15. William “Bill” Pincus, JD ’53, while never a law professor, was the visionary who conceived of clinical legal education and devoted energy and funding to setting it in motion. GW’s Jacob Burns Community Legal Clinics—which has been teaching students to serve clients for more than 40 years—and clinical legal education as a whole owe their origins to him.   

The son of immigrant parents, Bill Pincus spent much of his career as a civil servant, working in government bodies ranging from the National Park Service and the first and second Hoover Commissions to the U.S. Congress. At the age of 29, as an already experienced public servant and the father of young children, he began GW Law’s evening program in 1949. 

Several years after earning his law degree, Mr. Pincus became an executive at the Ford Foundation, where he dispensed funding to those who submitted grant applications in public administration and law. Concerned that not everyone who needed a lawyer could afford to obtain one, he funded legal services projects that would improve access to justice. It was in this context that he forged the idea of law school clinics that would provide academic credit to students, supervised by law school faculty, for lawyer–client experiences. Clinics, he believed, would not only direct bright young law students into legal services but also encourage legal education to incorporate the teaching of professional responsibility through learning experiences outside of the classroom. 

From 1959 to 1968, he used Ford Foundation money to create and expand legal services for the poor and clinical education for law students. Next, as president of the Ford-funded Council on Legal Education and Professional Responsibility (CLEPR), he used CLEPR’s funds, influence, and training resources to promote to lawyers and law professors the idea of law school clinics. During the CLEPR era, many law schools, including Harvard, received grants to open clinical programs. When CLEPR ended in 1980, most U.S. law schools and many in other countries had some form of clinical education—a dramatic transformation of legal education in a short period of time. 

Mr. Pincus has been widely recognized for his contributions to legal education. Every year, for example, the Clinical Legal Education Section of the Association of American Law Schools honors a person who has made major contributions to clinical education with the William Pincus Award. 

In remarks published in the Cleveland State Law Review (1980), Associate Judge John M. Ferren of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals said of his friend and colleague, “Occasionally, we come across a person who has an idea for helping other people, who believes he or she can do something about it, who knows the goal will take many years to accomplish, who is absolutely committed, and who has no personal ambition beyond finding the resources and the energy to make that vision a reality. This describes the kind of person I admire most. It describes Bill Pincus … To him, equal justice would not be achievable without more broadly trained lawyers, sensitive to individuals, and committed—truly committed—to helping persons in need.”

Phyllis Goldfarb, Jacob Burns Foundation Professor of Law and associate dean for clinical affairs, praised Mr. Pincus’ creativity, initiative, and perseverance: “Bill Pincus provided the spark that brought clinical legal education to every law school in the United States and to many other countries as well. It is fitting that GW Law, Bill’s alma mater, was one of clinical education’s early adopters. As we enhance and expand clinical legal education here and elsewhere, we carry on Bill Pincus’ legacy and are guided by his vision. We strive to be worthy descendants of his pioneering cause.”